Boring digression: How I blog

I assume that most of you are here to look at cool pictures of New Zealand. Sorry, because this post is not that. I want to take a moment to talk about my blog process. Why? Because I’m an engineer and I love talking about process. I would also love to hear any suggestions in the comments about ways to do this better! The Internet is a big conversation, and hopefully as participants in this conversation we can all help each other grow in what we do.

Also, questions about my blog process are some of the (few) questions I have gotten. This gives me the excuse to talk about it, as I can claim I’m answering reader questions. Side note: I like getting questions because answering them makes me feel smart :). My email address is on my About page; feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.

So without further ado: my blogging process.

Step 1: Find an adventure

I need something to write about before I can write about it!

I have the Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand. Honestly, I’ve barely looked at it. Here’s the top ways I hear about places to go exploring:

Hear about it from a friend

This is probably my favorite way to learn about a site. I love it when people tell me “hey, you should check this place out”. Some of my favorite hikes and adventures have been at locations suggested to me by others.

Read about it online

There’s a ton of information online for would-be explorers and adventurers!

I always have a billion tabs open to various places I’ve discovered through web searches or online forums or what have you. The Auckland Region in particular has a lot of great online information for many of their parks and reserves, so just browsing the list can sometimes reveal hidden gems!

I have a list full of places I’ve found, but it’s always a game-time decision where to go. It depends on the weather, how I’m feeling, and anyone else who may be interested in coming along. Occasionally I’ll call a last-minute audible and go somewhere else entirely from where I said I would go the day before!

Spot it on a map

Some cool places I’ve gone to were found because I was scrolling around on Google Maps and saw a splodge of green. No joke. This is especially helpful if you already know you’re going to a place and you want to figure out if there’s anything else nearby to check out. For example, I knew I was going to check out the Manukau Heads Lighthouse, but I found Awhitu Regional Park by looking on the map to see what was nearby.

I also, as I’ve mentioned before, like to play a game called “how do I get behind / underneath / on top of that thing?”. It can be a fun exercise to use a map or aerial photography to scout out a location and see if I can experience it from a different angle than most people.

Step 2: Have an adventure!

This is, obviously, the best part.

I work on Saturdays because of time zones. I also don’t park my car in the city because it’s expensive. So on Saturday after work, I’ll take the train out to Ellerslie to grab my car and then drive it back to the city. Parking on the street is free after 6pm, and I know where a lot of the good parking spots are. By this point, I’ve actually gotten decent at parallel-parking a right-hand-drive car.

On Monday morning, Mondays being my day off, I usually spend time calling and video chatting with friends back home (for whom it’s Sunday afternoon). I’ll often put a few bucks in the parking meter to give me time to do this. But by 10 or 10:30 at the latest, I’ll be ready to go. Assume an hour of driving each way and Summer daylight lasting until 8:30, and that gives me eight solid hours of exploring.

I try to remember to take photos. I really do. This blog has helped me get a lot better about that. But I’ll be honest: by nature, I’m more of a “be in the moment” guy than a “gotta get a photo” guy.

Step 3: The photo process

My home office is pretty basic. I bought a desk for like NZ$20 at the Warehouse and a TV tray for my MacBook for about the same.

I use ownCloud to store my photos (I pay a few bucks a month for a virtual private server running my ownCloud installation). Every photo I take with my phone gets automatically uploaded to ownCloud and then synced to my desktop and laptop.

At some point during the week, I pull the photos off my Nikon camera and put them in an ownCloud directory named after the place they were taken (for instance, the folder would be named Muriwai if I took the photos at Muriwai Beach). I also grab the photos from the Camera Uploads directory and put those in the same directory.

As you might imagine, by this point I have a lot of directories (and I have cleverly scrolled the window so the directories for stuff I haven’t posted yet are not visible) (I then cleverly changed my posting order so that previous statement is no longer true. Spoiler alert, I suppose!).

At this point, on my MacBook, a program called Flickr Uploadr watches my ownCloud folders. It creates an album on Flickr named after the folder I just created and then silently uploads all the photos in that directory. This is automatic enough to feel a bit like magic, and it pleases me.

The upload often takes a while, but that doesn’t bother me because it happens in the background and I’m in no hurry.

So at this point I have Flickr albums for every trip I’ve taken, neatly organized chronologically.

I should note that I don’t do any post-processing on any of my photos. This isn’t a point of pride; it’s just because I’m not that fancy and because I don’t own any photo processing software.

Step 4: Writing the post

About a month or so after doing the actual adventure, I write the post on it.

This is not because I’m lazy (rather, this is not entirely because I’m lazy). It’s because I’m behind. I make two posts a week — any more than that and I feel like it would be too much stuff for my handful of readers to keep up with. You’d think that with one adventure a week and two posts a week I’d run out of material pretty quickly, but actually I have a queue of about a month’s worth of posts written but not posted yet. This is because some adventures take multiple posts to tell, and sometimes I do multiple things in the same day but make separate posts about them. And sometimes I have bonus adventures or large vacations (like the one I’m on right now to the South Island). This is the same reason I’m behind on writing the posts (and I could catch up if I wanted to, but there’s no real need since I have such a vast buffer of drafts). So between my one month draft buffer and my one month delay between having the adventure and writing about it, it’s a good two months or more before an adventure shows up on the blog. This time gap is useful to give perspective on the event and help me process it mentally. It also means that I never feel like I have to write a post. If my muse just isn’t showing up or I’m just not feelin’ it, that’s fine…I can hold off.

This post in process. How meta!

When it comes time to write the post, I use the standard WordPress editor. I write in HTML view, and then before I post it (which as you recall is a gap of about a month) I proofread in the visual editor.

But how do I get the photo links from Flickr into HTML? That’s my secret sauce which I’m super proud of and I’m revealing to you now :)

I wrote a little program called Flickr Linkr, available as Open Source on a github near you, which takes Flickr URLs and turns them into HTML or (optionally) bbcode links.

All I have to do is hit the “export” link, circled in red using my mad photo editing skillz, copy the URLs into the first box, and then the program will magically grab each URL and create the HTML to preview and link the picture. It will give me thumbnails for every photo it’s processed so I can select each thumbnail to get the HTML and stick it exactly where I want it.

I wrote this program in Node.js after WordPress launched their new editor that didn’t work with my old workflow. I’m really quite pleased with how well this little tool has improved my productivity with writing posts :)

In any case, I shoot for between 500 – 1000 words per post. Occasionally I’ll have fewer than that, and this post is currently over 1800 (though it’s a Talkytalk post so it’s a little special). Generally if a post goes over 1000 words I’ll split it into two posts. I love reading (and I’m really vain so I usually like reading my writing), but I know not everybody feels the same way so I try to keep the posts slim ‘n’ trim. I’d rather people say “man, I wish the posts were longer” rather than “does he ever shut up?”, although as we all know the answer to the second question is “no”.

So as I said earlier, once the draft is written I’ll save it and then go watch cat videos on YouTube or whatever. Then, a month or so later, it will be the next post in my Drafts folder and I’ll proofread it (if you see a spelling or grammar mistake, it’s probably in text that I inserted while proofreading. Embarrassing, yes, but it does happen). I proofread using the visual editor so I can see the images inline with the text. This helps me catch the occasional copy pasta error where I put a photo in with the wrong text or post the same photo twice or somesuch (I make it a principle to never post the same photo twice if I can help it. If you see something that looks like the same photo, it’s probably a similar photo I took of the same thing).

Post!

At that point, I click the Publish button and the post goes on the Internet for my Mom to read :). Occasionally I will schedule posts to be published at a certain time, like if I know I’m going to be busy some day and won’t be there to manually publish. But I like to leave things a bit spontaneous, so usually I publish them by clicking the button myself.

As I said earlier, I can always stand to grow. Suggestions for process improvements are welcome. Or let me know what your process is!

Next time we will return to your regularly-scheduled adventure. We’re going to finally see the new camera in action!

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Boring Camera Talk

When I first started this blog, I was very reluctant to call it a photo blog. Not just because I still slightly cringe at the pseudo-word “blog” but because I am not a photographer. I have nothing but the most rudimentary understanding of exposure, composition, framing, and all of the other technical aspects which make true photographers’ images stand out from the masses.

Even if I do acknowledge that this weblog which contains mostly photos is in fact a photo blog, I told myself I would never be one of those camera nuts who spends all his time talking about this lens and that camera. Not to mention, cameras and lenses are expensive! I definitely am not interested in yet another brutally costly hobby.

Anyway, for Christmas I bought a new camera. And now I’m going to tell you about it.

The camera is a Nikon D3300, an entry-level DSLR. I have two pretty basic lenses, one that goes from 18-55mm and one that goes from 55-200mm. For those unfamiliar with camera-speak, the first one (which I call the “small lens” even though it isn’t) is good for zoomed-out landscape photos and taking pictures of things and people up close. The second one (the “big lens”, even though it isn’t) zooms in way further than anything I have owned up until this point, though it’s far from being a telephoto lens.

Soon after purchasing it, I walked out to Mt. Eden to try it out. Note that I never retouch any of my photos, so this is all as it was produced by the camera. I was super interested to see how the same shot looks so different depending on the camera!

Subject 1: Auckland

No camera of mine will be any good if it can’t take a good photograph of Auckland City.

This is from my phone camera (an LG Nexus 5). With HDR+ on, the camera has done a great job of making the colors (the grass, the trees, the sky) pop. Not bad for a phone camera, but the subject (Auckland) is a bit lost in the landscape. Admittedly, New Zealand does have that effect on photographic subjects.

The image is 3200 x 2368 for a total of 7.5 megapixels. The focal length is 4mm, which I don’t believe is adjustable (I could be wrong, but I think all zooming from the phone camera is done in software). I did a lot of reading on the Internet (a.k.a. exhaustive research) about focal length and zoom ratios, and came away feeling just as ignorant as I was when I started.

This is from my point-and-shoot, a Canon PowerShot A630. Without the benefit of HDR, this camera’s sensor just doesn’t do as solid a job of making the colors stand out. The focal length on the Canon when completely zoomed out is 7.3mm, so as one might expect the city is slightly larger in the frame here. Not by a lot, but I think it does help the composition a bit. Of course, a skilled photographer can compensate for these things.

The image is 3264 x 2448, for a total of nearly 8 megapixels. In the Canon’s defense, it’s been through quite a lot. It would not surprise me to learn that the image quality has degraded from new.

This is from the DSLR with the small lens.

It is way better than the murky colors on the Canon. It lacks the HDR feel of the Nexus camera’s, and the color temperature seems much cooler. The different aspect ratio of this sensor is also pretty apparent, since even though at 18mm this should be the most zoomed in of the three, it also captures more side detail. I really like the clarity of this picture.

The image is 6000 x 4000 for a clean 24 megapixels. Note the 3:2 aspect ratio compared to the 4:3 of the others

Subject 2: The Sky Tower

Now to zoom in on Auckland’s most iconic structure: the Sky Tower. The phone camera did not participate in this test because its zoom is, as previously mentioned, terrible. I’m a horrible photographer, and even <i>I</i> know that digital zoom is pointless. You might as well fire up Microsoft Paint and draw a bitmap with your mouse of what you’re seeing. Just say no.

Also, I apologize in advance for the terrible job at centering the subject. Again, I am not a real photographer.

This is the Canon. Honestly, this photo makes me sad. The Canon is such a cheerful little camera, but at full zoom it just doesn’t do a very good job. You can barely make out the ANZ logo on the eponymous tower, and despite the blue in the sky this photo makes the weather look completely overcast. It’s all just muddled and murky and unfortunate.

This is the small lens at full zoom (55mm). Definitely not as zoomed in as the Canon, but the quality difference is significant.

And here just for the lulz is the big lens zoomed in to 100mm, or about 1/3 of the way. Dusk is approaching so the sky is getting darker, though I also could have fixed the exposure to not be so dark. If I knew what I was doing, that is. Which I don’t, and I knew even less at that point (I have since messed with it and learned a few things).

Bonus material

OK, this is getting long and boring. Here’s a phew other photos I took with this camera to liven things up.

The Sky Tower in Christmas colors.

Zoomed in on the top.

I was standing beside St. Pat’s to take the above photos, so I captured one of the nativity scene while I was at it.

An Auckland sunset.

The best bird photo I have ever taken.

Yep

So thanks for tolerating this boring camera post. There’s another boring post coming, but if you can sit through that then the next couple of posts will feature some really cool photos that I hope showcase the camera’s ability!